Monday, June 28, 2010

The Race is On...

Having grown up in the USA, we have a very firm grip on the term "racism". It is part of our checkered past and our present. The situation here in Penang with regards to race can only be described as enigmatic.

The island of Penang is quite different from the rest of Malaysia. On this island the ethnic make-up is equal parts Malay, Indian and Chinese with a growing number of expats from all over the world thrown in for good measure. On the surface these different cultures with their different religions live together peacefully. But once you've been here a while and gotten to know some of them, the reality of the situation becomes clear.

1. There is a set of laws here called "bumiputra" which basically give native Malays a whole slew of special privileges. Think affirmative action run amok. Native Malays get all the government jobs, discounts on real estate, first pick at colleges and more. It is actually illegal to even discuss repealing these laws!

2. In spite of the bumiputra laws it seems the ethnic group here with the most money are the Chinese. They are the doctors, business owners, etc., and if you drive by a beautiful mansion chances are it is owned by a Chinese family.

3. At least on the island, the ethnic group that seems to have it the hardest are the Indians. They comprise the majority of the poorest people here.

Now the situation with expats is even stranger. In some ways we are highly much so it is kind of embarassing. They use a lot of terms with us that show respect and subservience. And we get special treatment that is so obvious it makes me cringe. For instance, if you were to come to our home you would have to go through the guest entrance gate. If you are white the guards will just wave you in without even checking. But if you are not, you will get grilled with questions and not be allowed to enter without ID and special permission (and a blood sample and your first born...ok, just kidding...sort of).

Another example, the police set up blockades and do checks for your "road tax" sticker which is the same as a license tab in the U.S. Without fail they will wave the white people through without even checking. It has happened to us several times. In real estate ads for houses and apartments for rent it will actually say "expats only" because we are considered(as I have been told) more dependable about paying rent on time.

But on the flip side of that, the locals will try to rip you off if you are white all the time! It is called the skin tax. You will get overcharged for everything from parking, to taxis, to buying food at the market, to paying for name it. You have to fight to get a decent price! Sometimes telling them you live here and are not a tourist helps but not always.

It is an interesting situation to say the least and keeping track of it all can be confusing. But it has been a learning experience and just goes to show that America is not the only country that deals with racism.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Home Sweet Home

The housing situation in Penang is quite different from the area I grew up in. First, let me clear up one misconception right off the bat... we do NOT live in a grass hut! In fact, the housing here is quite nice. Because it is a small island, land is at a premium. While in America, we like our huge McMansions with their big foot print and huge lots, in Penang everything goes up, not out. Housing comes in a few different forms:

apartment buildings (called condos) that are generally many, many stories high with underground parking garages. A nice, modern 3 bedroom apartment, usually around 1500 sq ft, will cost around $200-300,000 in USD. They are all owned by private owners and then lived in, used as a vacation home or rented out.

terrace homes which are basically like condos as they are full size homes but no yards. This is what we live in. It has 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, about 2200 sq ft and if you wanted to buy one it would cost you $350-400,000 in USD. Thank goodness housing is part of our compensation.

semi-detached homes which we call duplexes. These sometimes come with a teeny tiny yard (and here, yards are called gardens whether there is actually a garden growing there or not). Some of these are terribly run down as they have been here a while, before Penang became a hot spot to live. But the newer ones are really nice.

landed homes (also called detached homes) which we would just call a house. These usually come with a small yard but they are rare and usually only the very rich can afford them. Most of these would fall under the "mansion" category. They sell for a few million dollars.

Also, it is quite normal to live in a gated community. Although major crime like rape, murder, etc. is practically nonexistant here, lesser crimes like home invasion are more frequent. There is a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots and there isn't much of a middle ground. So unfortunately, stealing is pretty common. Therefore, the nicer, newer areas will have gates, guards, cameras, etc. The community we live in is VERY strict and you cannot come to visit us unless we leave your name with the guards and you show ID. It is kind of a pain to be honest but I get why they do it.

Most of the homes you rent come fully furnished which is also quite different from the U.S. And the homes are all very contemporary with lots of glass, marble, chrome, etc. You won't find any "country kitchens" or victorian decor here. Here are some pics from our home and neighborhood to give you an idea of what it is like here.

We live high on a hill so the roads are all pretty steep. Fun for the kids to ride their scooters down. Not so fun pushing them back up!

Because yards are so rare, all homes come with balconies. We have three floors and each floor has a balcony.

As I mentioned, everything is contemporary...marble floors and the cupboards actually have bluish-tinted glass fronts.

The comtemporary "sectional" couch seems to be a staple in many homes here. Hip light fixtures too. The books are mine, though. :)

And many of these gated communities come with a pool, clubhouse, work-out room, playground, etc. So the kids have a blast!

So we are definitely not "roughing it". Add the year-round summer and it is a pretty good gig. :) Feel free to come visit!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bursting Our Bubble

You’ve heard it said, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Well we are living proof that it is true.

We came here to Malaysia excited about the adventure, about the new culture, about all the different things we would encounter. Then we walked off the plane and we got EXACTLY that. Everything was different…very, very different. It looked strange. It smelled strange. And I remember thinking, “Oh no. What have we done.”

We found out quickly, however, that there are ways to live a very “American” lifestyle here if you want. There are restaurants that serve American food. There are grocery stores that sell American food. Heck, even the school we work at has an American curriculum. And there is even a church here that is filled with expats from the U.S. and other western countries. Pretty soon, we were safe and snug in our American bubble, away from as much of this strangeness as possible.

One day, about half way through the year, we all looked at each other and said, “What are we doing? We are in Malaysia trying to live like we are in the U.S. If that’s what we want then let’s go back to the U.S.” So we all decided to step out of the boat a little further…

We decided to try attending a new church. It is a small church, maybe 70 people or so? Our first Sunday there the first thing we noticed is that we were the only white faces there! The pastor is Sri Lankan. The congregation is Indian, Chinese, Korean and others. It was so awesome to watch all these people from vastly different cultures, singing and worshipping together. It made me think “this must be what heaven will be like…people from every tongue, tribe, and nation together in peace.” And it was really amazing to watch how sincere their worship style was. They were all warm, friendly and completely without affectation. I have NEVER seen that in a church before.

The more steps we take outside our bubble, the more amazing our experience has become. From simple things like trying new food to incredible things like meeting people from all over the world. For instance, today the church had a luncheon for Father’s Day. I sat at a table with people who are Sri Lankan but born in Malaysia… Canadian but living in Malaysia… American but raised in Malaysia and now living in Papua, New Guinea and visiting Malaysia. Kyle attended an event with this church’s small youth group and he was the only American there. He is making new friends from all over the world!

And with each new thing we try we get more courage to venture a little further out, and a little further, and a little further. Because of the people we are meeting we now have opportunities to travel to places we never would have thought of to visit these new friends. Because of these new friends we have realized that America is NOT the only country on the globe and that these other countries have a richness of culture that we are so blessed to experience.

And while everything here is FAR from perfect, it is not the terrible traffic or the awful restaurant service that will stick with us when the time comes to leave. When we leave here we will take in our hearts experiences and memories that would not have been possible anywhere else. We will take our new friendships and our broader horizons with us. It has been a really amazing year and we are so glad we burst that American bubble we were living in and opened our eyes to a whole new world!